It was a televisual year when every streaming service seemed to want to make a documentary about Britney, Marvel brought its cinematic universe to the small screen, everyone doubled down on true crime (sometimes virtually head-to-head on the same subject) and Korean drama suddenly became the genre du jour.
Everything about the ‘90s was either celebrated or reviled, wellness retreats became a popular backdrop, Kiwis finally got to see a steady supply of HBO Max content and Bridgerton was the talk of last summer, before Netflix sent everyone Lupin and helped medical drama New Amsterdam find a whole new audience.
But while the latest instalments of old favourites like Billions, Succession, Dexter, What We Do in the Shadows, You and Line of Duty proved more than satisfying, it was some of the newbies that made the biggest impact.
After looking through the schedules, Stuff to Watch has come up with a list of our favourites that debuted in 2021 (and where you can watch them right now).
* Marvel’s No Way Home, Netflix’s Don’t Look Up among December’s must see movies
* Disney’s Boba Fett, Neon’s Sex sequel, Netflix’s Witcher among December’s must see TV
* Lockdown viewing: 2021 Emmys’ top nominated shows (and where you can watch them)
* Go tell your Mum: Acorn TV is the streaming service she didn’t know she needed
Creamerie (TVNZ OnDemand)
Despite the premise, initial aesthetics and the presence of the luminous Tandi Wright, a dystopian drama akin to the under-rated, sadly short-lived This is Not My Life, this Kiwi black comedy is not. Instead, it’s an, at times anarchic, kind of anti-Handmaid’s Tale that’s not for the easily offended.
Our main trio are messy, complicated, straight-talking women and those unfamiliar with the production team’s previous shows Flat3 and Friday Night Bites could be in for either a hilarious surprise, or rude shock. Fans of the work of JJ Fong, Perlina Lau, Ally Xue and director Roseanne Liang, who also serves as one of Creamerie’s four writers, will be delighted to see them tackle another genre with their sensibilities and subversiveness intact.
Deservedly attracting interest as well, it has already aired on Australia’s SBS OnDemand and begins screening on America’s Hulu this week.
Cruel Summer (Amazon Prime Video)
A double-whammy doozy of a narrative device is at the heart of the compelling teen drama about two small-town Texas girls whose lives are both irrevocably changed when one of them is kidnapped
Not only do events play out on roughly the same day across three consecutive calendar years, but each of this impressively taut psychological thriller’s 10 episodes looks at things from alternating characters’ perspectives a la The Affair.
While the soundtrack and clever aesthetics help create an atmosphere of dread and distrust, the real key to the show’s success are the terrific performances of former Disney teen star Olivia Holt and Tell Me Your Secrets’ Chiara Aurelia.
Clarkson’s Farm (Amazon Prime Video)
After some less-than-special Grand Tours, Jeremy Clarkson came back with a bang, but without a test track or star in a reasonable priced car in sight.
While he has lorded over his 1000-acre Chipping Norton haven since 2008, when it comes to “doing farming”, he quickly discovers, in this eight-part series, he’s very much on foreign soil.
Fans worried that their favourite acerbic antediluvian has gone green need not worry, Clarkson is still just as irascible, irrepressible and irresponsible as ever.
What could have been just a different setting for what has become Clarkson’s now trademark boorish insolence, incompetence and indifference to others, is instead surprisingly insightful and just occasionally introspective.
Gritty, grimy and, at times, a somewhat grisly watch, this three-part British drama nonetheless makes for compelling viewing.
Former EastEnders and The Tunnel screenwriter Emilia di Girolamo’s tale isn’t your traditional stopping-the-serial-killer crime story, but rather a forensic investigation into an ill-conceived operation, driven by a group of men desperate to achieve the result the tabloids and the public were baying for, regardless of the additional human cost.
At the heart of Deceit is a magnificent performance by Irish actor Niamh Algar. Along with her stunning turn in the 1980s set feature Censor, one of the best horrors of the year, she is carving out a reputation for creating memorable characters facing extremely challenging scenarios.
Here she speaks volumes, challenges perceptions and expertly draws in the audience, often without saying much at all.
Mare of Easttown (Neon)
The first instalment of this slow burning, but ultimately gripping seven-part series is set over the course of single day – one that doesn’t start well and gets seemingly progressively worse for Kate Winslet’s jaded small-town detective, Mare Sheehan.
An Easttown hero since the evening she scored the state championship-winning basket almost exactly 25 years ago, Mare is steeling herself for a night of reminiscing – and recriminations.
Acerbic, cynical, grumpy, Winslet makes Mare memorable through moments large and small, whether it’s the way she attacks a chicken leg in her car, or attempts to deflect the attentions of the newly-arrived-in-town creative writing lecturer Richard (Guy Pearce) with a dismissive “My life’s complicated.” She’s a flawed “heroine” to rival Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes or Amy Adams’ Camille Preaker.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything (Apple TV+)
Admirers of cinematic documentaries Amy, Senna and Diego Maradona should definitely check out this eight-part series.
That’s because it offers director Asif Kapadia’s crowd-pleasing mix of pitch-perfect archival footage, historical audio and modern-day voice-overs on a grand scale.
The ambitious project aims to capture the turbulent time, exactly 50 years ago, when America was hugely divided, embroiled in an unpopular war and saddled with a president many didn’t care for. Racial and generational tensions were high. Rock stars were the most influential people on the planet, and they weren’t just going to stand on the sidelines.
Only Murders in the Building (Disney+)
Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez team up for this 10-episode comedy about three strangers who share an obsession with true crime.
They are amazed to find themselves wrapped up in a mystery of their own when one of their New York apartment building neighbours dies.
Martin’s first foray into series television is a witty, engrossing and thoroughly entertaining triumph. Teaming up with his old pal Short and a seriously impressive Gomez, the triumvirate spark, spar and attempt to solve the mystery – with hilarious results.
Starstruck (TVNZ OnDemand)
Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo’s plans for global domination remain on track with the release of this charming and clever sitcom.
Co-written with fellow New Zealand funnywoman Alice Snedden, this sees Matafeo playing Jessie, a London millennial juggling jobs as a feckless nanny and argumentative upmarket cinema worker. When a night out drinking sees her end up in bed with movie star Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel), she’s completely unsure of what to do next.
Delivering the same winningly candid, self-effacing style that has been a hallmark of Matafeo’s stand-up shows, Starstruck is a cringe- and charm-filled comedic delight. A kind of gender-swapped Notting Hill, set around Hackney, it takes aim at modern relationships and mores, more than the nature of celebrity and its impact on the other half.
Sweet Tooth (Netflix)
Based on Canadian artist Jeff Lemire’s 40-issue comic-book series of the same name, this eight-part fantasy series uses our lush landscapes and, um, suburban Mission Bay, to bring to life a charming and exciting post-apocalyptic adventure that will deservedly make a star out of its young lead.
It’s set almost 10 years after “the Great Crumble”, the moment when humanity discovered that life would never be normal again. H5G9 quickly became the deadliest virus in our lifetime, producing fatalities not seen “since the black plague”. However, as the world slipped into chaos, something else was happening in the nation’s maternity wards. The children being born arrived as if spliced with animal DNA.
Vigil (TVNZ OnDemand)
Taggart among the torpedoes. Broadchurch below decks. Line of Duty on a submarine.
A crime-drama that rocked and riveted Britain during the late summer, even Kiwis got caught up in the fever surrounding Detective Chief Inspector Amy Silva’s (Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones) six-part investigation into the death of a seaman and uncovering of a wider naval conspiracy.
A potent cocktail mixing Line’s attention to procedure and obsession with corruption, Bodyguard’s flawed heroes and threats to state security and a claustrophobic, hermetically sealed setting ripe with danger and dramatic potential, Vigil certainly offers gripping viewing.
While perhaps never in your craziest dreams would you have thought the first big-budget Disney-backed Marvel show would be about two of the minor characters and essentially pay homage to famous American TV sitcoms past, this is wild, wacky and weirdly compelling viewing.
It’s initially disconcerting – you feel like you’ve inadvertently found yourself on SkyTV’s Jones! Channel. But once you embrace the broad genre cliches and tropes (a laugh track, pratfalls, dad jokes and dialogue that drips with syrupy schmaltz) and get used to black-and-white aesthetics, you’ll find yourself falling hook, line and sinker for this The Truman Show-meets-Pleasantville conceit.
A highly addictive slice of engrossing escapism that’s also a wonderful celebration of television itself.
We Are Lady Parts (Neon)
It’s Bend It Like Beckham meets The Big Sick. The Young Ones updated to reflect a more multicultural, enlightened Britain. The craziest band since Spinal Tap and Bad News.
Welcome to the most electrifying, entertaining and endlessly hilarious UK sitcom in ages.
Writer-director Nida Manzoor’s six-part series is a riotous laugh-fest, filled with memorable moments, weird and wonderful flights of fantasy and meditations on the perils of modern life and dating as a young British Muslim woman.
If you’re a fan of irreverent, anarchic comedy, you’ll love this series, which runs the humour gamut from Wayne’s World to Four Lions.